Race Counts … Just Don’t Say How Much


The Supreme Court’s two split decisions Monday on the affirmative action programs at the University of Michigan’s law school and in its undergraduate college seem to leave the country with a glass that is half full. Though it’s easy to understand Michigan’s president Mary Sue Coleman calling it a “tremendous victory” for all of higher education, the court did find the university’s somewhat clumsy point system for undergraduate admissions too close to quotas for comfort. If, however, the court had decided against the university in both cases, and had not agreed that race can be part of admission decisions, the hard ground gained over the past 50 years would not be available to future generations for some time.

Clearly, the court’s process and the public discourse in anticipation of its ruling suggest that after 30-plus years, affirmative action programs still need fine tuning. Even as the admission of African Americans, for instance, to graduate and professional schools creates a growing black middle class, and increases our access to corporate and government power, society is still faced with the question of how to extend educational opportunity to the millions of the disenfranchised, especially those who have suffered centuries-long oppression and exclusion, and the consequent disadvantages. So it is important that the court preserved the principles upheld in its, until now, most recent affirmative action ruling, the 1978 Bakke decision.

Though Monday’s decision technically applies only to publicly funded institutions, this is an incredibly important group that includes large systems like those in Texas, Michigan, and California. These systems are the gateway to higher education for thousands of poor, working-class, and immigrant people. It is important that they continue to be able to look the facts squarely in the face—to choose inclusion, knowing that diversity will benefit the populations of their states.

The ruling will probably change little at private institutions, especially the elite ones. Most now contend, as Michigan has, that diversity is an educational good in itself, and that they can achieve a mixed student body while still drawing from the country’s top high school and college graduates, most of whom also pay for their educations. This does not mean numbers haven’t dropped in some schools over the past 30 years but only that the schools have to respond to public opinion and other pressures for change. (I recently spoke at such a college and was chagrined to learn afterward from African American students that their numbers are now down to where they were when members of my generation integrated the school in the 1960s.)

Still, in quoting the historic 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor invoked the earlier court’s concern with the overall good for society. She also defended diversity’s value in her own words: “Effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our nation,” she wrote, “is essential if the dream of one nation, indivisible, is to be realized.” In emphasizing the value of integration beyond tokenism, many policy makers tend to de-emphasize the historical discrimination that was at the roots of the Brown case. Historical exclusion from education and decent employment continue to devastate people of color in this country. We still need to take a hard look at the alarming statistics on the education of African American, Native American, and Latino youth today before arguing for a system that is supposed to be “color-blind,” for society has never yet been color-blind when it comes to broken school systems, stop-and-frisk laws, police brutality, jail warehousing, and inadequate housing.

The idea of color-blind systems, promoted by affirmative action opponents and, for that matter, the dream of color-blind people, is an American invention—and when it comes to race, an oxymoron. It is ironic that those of us most afflicted by the American obsession with skin color seldom call for “color-blind” anything, or even use the term. It reminds me of the practice of “blind” auditions (invented, some say, to counter charges of racism in classical music), in which a musician tries out for an orchestra by playing behind a screen—so that the administrators cannot see who is playing. Putting up the screen is an admission that people feel incapable of overcoming racist judgments. It does not prevent discrimination and is a poor excuse to others who point to the hiring of, say, a “first” African American violinist as preferential treatment. We prefer to work for the end of racism, a state in which you can see me and still hear that I can play.

Related Story:

Saving Affirmative Action … and a Process for Elites to Choose Elites” by Lani Guinier